A debate is heating up over whether to pay Canadian blood donors for their blood plasma, thanks to recent statements by Canadian Blood Services (CBS) CEO Graham Sher, who when asked about CBS’ plans to start collecting more plasma from Canadian donors, said that the high demand for plasma meant that he could not rule out the possibility of payment.
“We are looking at our options, and I will repeat again our preferred option is not to pay donors. But can we achieve that economy of scale in growth?” says Sher.
This stands in contrast to Sher’s and CBS’ past position which categorically rejected the idea of paying Canadians for plasma, leading the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) to call for Sher’s resignation from CBS. “Dr. Sher has lost the public’s trust and should step down,” says OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas. “The fact that CBS would even consider paying people for their plasma is in direct contravention of the Krever Commission’s report from almost two decades ago. That report clearly stated that blood is a public resource and that donors should not be paid.”
Blood plasma is the liquid part of blood which primarily serves to transport red and white blood cells and platelets around the body. Plasma contains albumin, clotting factors and immunoglobulins which are used to treat a variety of diseases and conditions. People can donate plasma much more frequently than giving whole blood, up to once a month.
The main argument against allowing blood collection services to pay people for donating their blood plasma speaks to the commodification of body parts, something that, according to many, goes against deeply held Canadian values.
“We don’t buy and sell the human body,” says Margaret Somerville, founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and the Law. “That has been the principle that has informed a lot of our decisions in ethics and law.”
And while the claim can be made that as freely choosing, autonomous beings, people should have the right and the power to make decisions about the uses (including commercial ones) of their bodies, critics counter that by putting a price on blood plasma, the temptation may be too great for many of Canada’s poorer citizens, effectively questioning the contention that consent has been freely given. Others point to the potential slippery slope involved, saying that once we open the door to selling our blood plasma for money, selling our organs may be next.
A pay-for-donations plasma clinic opened up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, this past February, run by the company Canadian Plasma Resources and offering $25 gift coupons to donors in exchange for their blood. The move raised objections as the company has put up advertisements at the University of Saskatchewan geared at the student population as well as the fact that the clinic is located close to social services frequented by the city’s disadvantaged. Canadian Plasma Resources says unlike giving blood, plasma donation is a more lengthy process -it can take up to one and a half hours per session to separate the liquid portion of the blood from the cells- and thus it’s reasonable to compensate donors for their time and efforts.
Previously, Canadian Plasma Resources attempted to set up business in Ontario but was ultimately rebuffed when the province passed the Voluntary Blood Donations Act in Ontario in 2014 prohibiting payment to blood plasma donors.
The Krever Commission was struck in response to the tainted blood scandal of the 1980s when thousands of Canadians were infected with HIV and Hepatitis C from blood, much of which came from paid at-risk populations in the United States. The Commission resulted in both the creation of the CBS and Héma-Québec as arms-length bodies to oversee and administer blood donation services as well as the recommendation that payment for blood in Canada should only occur in rare circumstances.